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September 21, 2011

The stories that need to be told

Enter any good bookshop and you’ll find whole sections devoted to the history of Scotland’s capital city. Delve into any of those books and the chances are you’ll be reading about some aspect of the city which relates to its architectural or historic features.  But there is another side to Edinburgh – a side that rarely gets told. A fascinating new book, published by a local group in North Edinburgh, traces the history of community activism in a part of the city that rarely gets mentioned

Alex Wood, 26 Aug 2011

North Edinburgh has been a hotbed of community activism for decades, as a superb new book reveals.  Edinburgh has always been a divided city. Just under a quarter – 24% – of the city’s secondary school pupils are educated in private schools compared to 7% in the UK and 4% in Scotland. 

Nothing illustrates that division better than the index to Michael Fry’s Edinburgh, A History of the City, which mentions the New Town 29 times, the West End seven times, Queen Street, Morningside and Bruntsfield four times each. Royston, Wardieburn and Drylaw receive no mentions, Pilton and Granton one each and Muirhouse two. 

Never Give Up, a new book produced by North Edinburgh Social History Group, might help to redress the balance. It is a panoramic account of community activism in north Edinburgh, in the ignored and barely mentioned Pilton, Drylaw, Royston, Wardieburn, Granton and Muirhouse. 

Until the 1920s, these were farmlands. The Wheatley Housing Act in 1924, the first Labour Government’s single great achievement, encouraged local authorities to build good quality council housing. Building started on land between Granton Harbour and Davidson’s Mains. 

By 1940 Edinburgh Corporation had built 4,000 houses in Granton, Wardieburn and Royston Mains. Plans to build a further 2,500 at West Pilton were largely delayed by the Second World War. Simultaneously private housing for rent was also being built in East Pilton and Drylaw by Gumleys.

Interestingly – one of the few weaknesses of the work – there is no mention of Christian Salvesen’s development, initially tenanted primarily by seamen and light-housemen, between Muirhouse and the foreshore.

In 1939 Edinburgh’s Public Health Committee was informed of the extent of tuberculosis, Scotland’s age-old killer, in the Pilton area and warned it might spread – to middle-class Blackhall. The post- war campaign for mass X-rays as a first step in combating TB was a first, hugely successful joint venture between the local community and its health professionals.

The war and its aftermath created other problems, the book explains. There were high expectations of decent housing and an end to the overcrowding of the 1930s, and these led to direct action. 

In December 1945 14 families illegally occupied a former military hut at Crewe Toll. Support came from the Reverend Easton, minister of the Old Kirk. The families were rehoused. In 1946 the council took over an ex-Navy camp near Wardie School and housed 70 families there. 

Prefabs were rushed to completion, as was the West Pilton scheme. The results however were disastrous. The few pre-war houses in West Pilton, with pitched roofs and wooden windows, remain in use to this day. The result of hurried completion without adequate materials was that West Pilton was finished with flat roofs supported by metal struts and metal window frames, a disaster in terms of poor heating and internal dampness.

The West Pilton Community Association and countless other organisations led a campaign for a permanent community centre and facilities. The Rev Easton articulated local anger: “Brought down to an unfinished area, my people have had to watch their families suffer through the complete neglect of those in authority. If they have won some amenities…it has only been by fighting tooth and nail.” 

The Pilton Central Association emerged as the umbrella organisation for the greater Pilton area of North Edinburgh. The 1940s and 50s were the years of high employment. Even then reports of acute dampness in council houses were emerging.

Muirhouse and the first high-rise developments were built in the 1960s. The Muirhouse Residents Association and the Muirhouse Gala joined a list of local community ventures.

Their major campaigns were, again, for local facilities but increasingly against council imposed rent rises. In the late 1960s, a petition with 46,000 signatures was presented to the Corporation against rent rises and on that day the workers at Granton Wire Works struck in support of the rents protest.

Activism in the 1970s was centred on housing conditions and on local facilities, particularly for children. Local activists raised the resources themselves to purchase and create the Pilton Youth Retreat, Ratho, a facility which exists to this day. The Pilton Adventure Playground Association campaigned tirelessly for a local play facility.

The great housing issue was dampness. By the Thatcherite 1980s Edinburgh Corporation proposed a solution to the poor housing West Pilton: sell it off cheaply to private developers. Activists opposed the enforced housing moves. They developed Commune, the community newspaper, Video In Pilton, the West Granton Tenants Association and the Muirhouse Festival Association, supported the miners, opposed the poll tax and campaigned on local health issues.

The 1980s also, however, with enormous local job losses, saw poverty spiral and with it a drugs epidemic which brought heart-break and Aids in its wake. Since then the struggles have continued, against racism, and for the creation of new tenure models (co-operatives and housing associations) and cultural enterprises. Latterly however, the most powerful lesson learned has been that formal processes of community engagement and consultation, a model which sucks local activists into making decisions as to which bad option should be implemented, have contributed to a decline in community activism.

This superbly-produced, meticulously-researched local history connects local developments in north Edinburgh to national and international events. Never Give Up is a sharp rebuttal of the post-modern analysis of a parasitic underclass. What does emerge clearly is that in the period until the early 1970s there was a direct link between community activism and trade union and labour movement activism: unemployment and de-industrialisation have made that connection much more tenuous.

Written entirely by local activists, its production was facilitated by the support of the Pilton Central Association and The Community Development Journal. It illustrates how communities are forged when adversity and optimism meet. It is the latest reminder of the continually re-emerging creativity and the thirst for a better life in these communities.

Never Give Up is available from Lynn McCabe at the Prentice Centre, 1 Granton Mains Avenue, Edinburgh EH4 4GA. Although there is no charge for the publication, a donation of £5.00 towards postage, packaging and administration (cheques payable to North Edinburgh Social History Group) will cover costs.